Written and Directed by: Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Rose McGowan, Kurt Russell, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, and Bruce Willis
Reviewed by: Brett G.
A double feature that will tear you apart!
If there were ever two Hollywood directors that could adequately represent all the horror nerds out there, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino would be it. Both men have made careers out of paying homage to the films of their youth--the ones they’d watch in a local theater or on tapes rented from video stores, just like anyone else. In their first horror-joint venture, 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn, they exhibited their love for old-school, violent, tongue-in-cheek romps and created one of the best vampire films of all time. A decade later, the duo would re-unite for a more ambitious project that would pay tribute to the schlock and exploitation classics that populated grindhouse theaters in the 1970s. Billed as a double feature, the appropriately titled Grindhouse was quite an experience for those who managed to make it to theaters. A rip-roaring three hour retro trip, the film proved even the trashiest of cinema can be turned into an art of simulation and metafiction.
Our experience begins with “prevues of coming attractions,” specifically the Rodriguez-helmed Machete, a film about a Mexican day-laborer turned assassin (which actually did make it to theaters three years later). After some more retro ads, the first film of the double feature, Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, unfolds. It’s a tale about a rogue band of military figures who unwittingly unleash a virus that turns people into undead, ravenous creatures. A group of survivors band together against the undead assault, and blood and guts spew everywhere in glorious fashion. We’re then treated to some more coming attractions from Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, and Rob Zombie before segueing into Tarantino’s Death Proof, a film about a deranged stuntman that hunts unsuspecting girls in his “death proof” stunt car.
This film delivers just about everything you’d expect from the grindhouse era: scratched up prints, missing reels, alternate film titles, gratuitous nudity, and unrelenting violence. About the only thing that’s missing are the sticky floors and the vagrants that no doubt haunted 42nd street during its grimy prime. I suppose you’d call Grindhouse an anthology film, with the overall experience itself acting as a bookend framing it all together. Tarantino’s work has always exhibited a sort of post-modern pastiche quality that always reflected back onto cinema itself; with this, the metafiction is taken a step further by attempting to recreate a certain feeling or experience provided by a specific form of film-making. Every bit of artificial print damage and the intentionally placed missing reels are a wink and a nod at the viewer itself, reminding them that this is a simulation of a bygone era of cinema. Of course, the days of the grindhouse are long since gone, leaving this to be both a remnant and a simulacrum of the whole experience.
It’s an interesting concept--taking pure trash cinema and essentially making it the best it can be while nodding at the audience every step of the way. We’ve seen plenty of films about films and the process of film-making, but how many have really attempted to re-create something and the experience of it? In this respect, Grindhouse succeeds masterfully because it paints such broad strokes and feels like it’s trying to cram an entire era into the main features and the shorter segments. Planet Terror is Rodriguez’s splattery send-up of Z-grade Italian zombie films like Hell of the Living Dead and Nightmare City. It borders on parody at times and is certainly the more comedic of the two features, but it’s good absurd cinema. Considering how unintentionally bad many real grindhouse films were, this is something of a revelation and is easily one of the best films of its type (not that it’s really saying much, right?) There’s never a dull moment, and the film actually is quite atmospheric before all the carnage and the zany cast of characters take over. It’s a genuinely funny splatterfest that strews funny gags and body parts all over the place.
Tarantino’s segment is the meatier of the two and is also a bit more faithful to the exploitation experience. Whereas Planet Terror is crammed with all sorts of effects and relentless action sequences, Death Proof feels much cheaper and low-rent, like a proper grindhouse film. Heavily driven by Tarantino’s signature dialogue, it’s more of a pot-boiler that slowly centers itself around two violent vehicular set-pieces. Like any Tarantino film, it’s a mash-up of genres--it’s a car movie, a revenge movie, and it even has some slasher sensibilities in the way it references Psycho throughout (its structure and one sequence in particular feels ripped right out of Hitchcock’s film). There’s plenty of psycho-sexual subtext, and it would seem that only Tarantino could take the aesthetic of something like Switchblade Sisters and make a comment on gender roles and sexual undertones in horror films. As much as he likes to pay tribute to cinema, he also loves to subvert it, and he’s certainly up to that in Death Proof. It’s an expertly-directed thriller that actually plays a bit better in the Grindhouse context because it trims a lot of the fat that would later be restored to the stand-alone release of the film.
Then there’s all the miscellaneous scraps strewn throughout that further recreate the experience--the vintage advertisements and the fake trailers that cover just about everything the era had to offer. Machete is inspired by the vigilante movies of the 70s, while Edgar Wright’s Don’t is a clever take-off of the many films that implored its viewers not to do something (like look in a basement, go in a house, etc.). Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the S.S. hits on the small but somewhat significant wave of Naziploitation films that populated theaters, while Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving obviously references the slasher craze of the early 80s. There’s even a reference to the numerous “Women in Prison” films of this time period featured in Planet Terror. These all feel authentic, right down to the various announcers’ voices for each trailer (my favorite is the low-key, gravely voice for Thanksgiving, a hallmark of many slasher trailers). The whole thing comes together to form a crazy pastiche that references everything from Fu Manchu and Pretty in Pink to Rodriguez and Tarantino’s own previous works. There’s coy visual references (check out Jack Burton’s shirt hanging up in the bar that Stuntman Mike frequents in Death Proof and ponder the similarities between both characters), direct acknowledgements (the same car is the one from Vanishing Point), and even auditory cues, as the soundtrack is partly cobbled together from various other cinematic sources.
In many ways, Grindhouse is purely a cinematic tour de force, and I don’t think Tarantino and Rodriguez would have it any other way. Sure, it specifically harkens back to the grindhouse era, but it also feels like an attempt by both men to compile all the stuff that informed their own filmmaking into one big, nutty pile. In the hands of less capable artists, such an endeavor would have been a disaster. These two pull it off with ease, mostly because you can tell they were just having a good damn time with this one. It’s an excellent film all the way around, full of memorable sequences and characters, which has always been a specialty for these two. I could spend multiple paragraphs praising the characters alone: there’s Cherry Darling, a stripper who has an amputated leg replaced with a machine gun (McGowan), a bi-sexual nurse and her maniacal husband (Shelton and Brolin), a hard-ass deputy (Michael Beihn, who was thankfully rescued from cinematic oblivion, a pair of Crazy Babysitter Twins, and even Sherriff Earl McGraw (a character first introduced in From Dusk Till Dawn that continued to appear in other Tarantino films) shows up. There’s also Tarantino himself, who plays a sleazy military figure hell-bent on raping some of the female cast. This is not to mention the rest of the large ensemble, which also features the likes of Bruce Willis, Udo Kier, Tom Savini, and Cheech Marin.
Grindhouse was always destined to be a cult classic, and it’s certainly been on that path since its lukewarm reception at theaters. Like so many cult films, it went unappreciated and misunderstood, which isn’t too surprising. After all, any audience that could have remembered the grindhouse era were middle aged by 2007, and modern audiences didn’t seem to grasp the appeal or concept. Those who did venture to the theaters were treated to a fairly unique experience; I can say without a doubt that it was the best cinematic experience I ever had with a crowd.
Unfortunately, the complete Grindhouse experience has remained but a memory--the film’s poor reception resulted in each half being split up and distributed separately overseas, and that’s how the films eventually made it to home video as well, which is a shame. Sure, Planet Terror and Death Proof work very well alone, but, when removed from their Grindhouse context, a layer of the overall experience is lost. It might not seem like much, but the grab-bag of trailers and ads are vital to the experience. Fortunately, the Weinstein Company and Vivendi Visual have announced that the complete, unaltered film will finally make its way to Blu-ray on October 5th. In the future, I suspect the amount of people who will claim to have seen the film in theaters will far outnumber the amount of people who actually did. It’s already become the stuff of mythic proportions, and it’ll be fun to finally see it come home in all its glory. If you missed out on the experience in theaters, don’t hesitate to pick it up--it’s all it’s cracked up to be and is certainly one of the best horror offerings from the past decade. Buy it!
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